Editor's note: The spectacle that is SEC media days last month. Fall camp just arrived, with the regular season kicking off at the end of August. So what better time to roll out the preseason power rankings among teams in the SEC?
With that in mind, we'll count down the teams from worst to first. The format will involve a "best-case/worst-case" scenario for each team, taking our a page out of former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter's playbook from 2010. (One final note: Please, as Bitter said four years ago, remember all scenarios "are meant to be hyperbolic.")
No. 3: Georgia
The storyline with Mark Richt, as it is every year, is his pursuit of a national championship, the only thing missing on his otherwise sparkling resume. And at least on paper, the Bulldogs appear to be a legitimate national title contender. They have a fifth-year senior in quarterback Hutson Mason, who will have a solid offensive line in front of him. He'll also have plenty of targets to throw to in Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley. Oh, and they have a Heisman Trophy contender in tailback Todd Gurley, plus a few other options in the backfield: Keith Marshall and the freshmen duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
Despite the transfers/dismissals of multiple defenders, the unit still has talent everywhere, notably with the linebacker trio of Ramik Wilson, Amarlo Herrera and Jordan Jenkins. Sure, they lost defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to Louisville, but his replacement is Jeremy Pruitt, who only directed Florida State's BCS title-winning unit last year.
So Georgia has a puncher's chance, there's no doubt. But Georgia's fan base — and the program, too — is tired of merely being in the discussion every year, especially when every other powerhouse in the SEC (Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU) has won a national title (or two ... or three) since the turn of the millennium.
Will 2014 become the season that ends the national championship drought?
It's far from easy in the first two games, but no one expected them to be cakewalks. Still, Georgia walks away from its games versus neighboring rivals Clemson and South Carolina with a 2-0 record. The next five games go fairly smoothly, as the Bulldogs improve to 7-0 after victories over Troy, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Arkansas.
Up next is the annual tussle in Jacksonville, Fla., against arch-nemesis Florida. On a three-game win streak in the series, the Bulldogs hope to make it four in a row for the first time since capturing six straight from 1978-83. And Georgia does just that — in dominant fashion. Georgia wins in a rout, 41-10, marking the largest margin of victory in the series for the Bulldogs since a 44-0 blanking in 1982. The following week, Kentucky has no chance, as Georgia runs its record to 9-0.
Now the Bulldogs turn their attention to another undefeated team: the Auburn Tigers. It's the first time Georgia is playing at home in the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" since 2011. This year, it's a far closer game than that one, which Georgia won going away (45-7). Just like 2013, it's another classic. This time, Auburn doesn't jump out to a big lead; instead, it changes hands at least once every quarter. In the end, it's the Bulldogs who emerge as the victor, with Gurley scoring the go-ahead touchdown — part of a 33-carry, 223-yard effort — in a 45-42 scoring fest.
With their momentum as high as it's ever been under Richt, Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech are mere speed bumps on the Bulldogs' path to the SEC title game. The last time Georgia was in this position, it was on the wrong end of a 32-28 decision to Alabama. The Bulldogs turn the tables this time, knocking off the Crimson Tide 34-20 to capture their first conference crown since 2005, and in addition, clinch a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff.
Georgia is forced to pack its bags for a long road trip to California despite being ranked No. 2. But before they get to Pasadena, Gurley and Richt have to make a quick stop in New York City. After an outstanding junior campaign that saw him rush for 1,725 yards and 18 touchdowns, Gurley wins the Heisman Trophy. Once Georgia reaches the Rose Bowl, it sees a familiar face across the other sideline: Urban Meyer, who went 5-1 against the Bulldogs in his six years as Florida's coach from 2005-10. But the Buckeyes aren't the Gators. Georgia tops its Big Ten foe 42-28 to move on to the championship game.
To end the drought and give Richt his first national title, he'll have to beat his old team: Florida State, where he worked under Bobby Bowden from 1990-2000. The odds are long: The Seminoles come into the game riding a 30-game unbeaten streak and have rarely been tested en route to another championship game appearance. But the Bulldogs have a secret weapon few teams in the country can match: Pruitt. After a year in Tallahassee, the defensive coordinator is keenly aware of the few (infinitesimal) weaknesses in Jameis Winston's otherwise flawless game. He devises a perfect game plan to slow down the gifted signal-caller while Gurley rushes for three touchdowns to give the Bulldogs a 38-24 victory.
It is sweet vindication for Richt; viewed by some as a coach "too nice" to win a championship, he's now at the pinnacle of the college football world. Afterward, Gurley announces his decision to go pro, but with Marshall, Chubb and Michel back, the Bulldogs will be fine. The national title helps Georgia land a top-five recruiting class. The championship is made even sweeter for Georgia due to the struggles of Georgia Tech and Florida.
The Yellow Jackets finish 6-7 after falling in their bowl game while the Gators miss a bowl for the second straight season. The latter tidbit costs Will Muschamp his job, but it works out for the Bulldogs. Once Pruitt leaves to take over his own program at West Virginia — which fired Dana Holgorsen after a second consecutive 4-8 season — Muschamp, a former Bulldog defensive back, returns to Athens to assume the title of defensive coordinator.
Being down is never a good way to feel heading into a game; it's even worse when that opponent is the always-pesky Troy Trojans. Georgia has to sweat things out until midway through the fourth quarter before finally putting Troy away 34-24. But then the Bulldogs' confidence plunges even further — they fall to Tennessee, leaving them at 1-3 for the first time since 2010. Now, the only thing Georgia is playing for is to avoid missing the postseason for the first time in Richt's tenure.
They move back over .500 with wins over Vanderbilt, Missouri and Arkansas leading into its contest with arch-rival Florida. The Bulldogs have beaten the Gators three years in a row. They don't make it four. In a game that goes a long way toward saving Will Muschamp's job, Florida leaves Jacksonville with a 24-20 victory under its belt. The next three games go as expected: Georgia beats Kentucky, loses to a top-five Auburn squad and toys with Charleston Southern in a glorified exhibition. It all comes down to the season finale versus in-state foe Georgia Tech. With the postseason no longer in question, the Bulldogs are able to relax against the Yellow Jackets. At least, somewhat. It doesn't take multiple overtimes to dispatch Georgia Tech as it did last season, but there is still a hint of drama heading into the fourth quarter before Gurley scores a late touchdown to put the finishing touches on a 35-20 triumph.
With a 7-5 record, Georgia doesn't expect to land in a prestigious bowl. And it doesn't. The Bulldogs make the trek up Interstate 85 to Charlotte, N.C., where they've been pitted in the Belk Bowl opposite Louisville. Yes, the same place where Grantham now coaches and former Bulldog defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons transferred to last offseason. Still, the Queen City isn't where Georgia expected to be at the beginning of the year. The Bulldogs aren't thrilled to be there, and their play shows it. The Cardinals put on a pristine performance in taking a 38-21 victory. Wrapping things up at 7-6, it's the second-worst season under Richt after the 6-7 debacle of 2010.
Once the offseason sets in, things don't get much better. Gurley announces he'll forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft. The Bulldogs' 2015 recruiting class falls just outside the top 10 — not bad, but not good enough when six other SEC teams (Alabama, Auburn, LSU, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M) finish ahead of them. Worse, it doesn't look like things are going to get any easier in the future. Florida posts a bounceback nine-win campaign; Tennessee ends its own bowl drought and is primed for a run at the SEC championship. And its nemesis in the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" proves it isn't going anywhere, as Gus Malzahn's Tigers appear in the first year of the College Football Playoff.